What will survive of us

Dad in the Australian army

Dad, aged around 17 in the Australian army

This is the photograph that sat on my bedside table until very recently. Countless times I have pored over it, sometimes furtively, by the light of my lamp after it was safe and my husband had turned over to his side of the bed. I absolutely love this picture.  Mainly, my dad’s youth, his face still transforming from the podginess of early teens to a more defined structure of late adolescence. Secondly, his nonchalant stance; hat upturned and gently tipped to the right; cigarette laconically perched inside his left upper lip; arms crossed, fingers interlaced, thumbs apart and resting on his chest; a stance that projects confidence. Finally that expression; pupils just visible, as though glancing up; a mixture of indifference and uncertainty. 

I do wonder how he did feel at this moment. And that is one of the most difficult aspects of death to digest.  You simply cannot ask that person ANY thing ANY more.  It feels like a brick wall, and one that you repeatedly walk into, sometimes several times a day.  A immovable object- insurmountable. Most commonly this feeling comes soon after the death itself, during the first wave of grief, which for me didn’t hit until my own adolescence when I began to be aware of the father I never had. It was a sickening and slow-dawning realisation that the fact of death- reaching out for someone and being unable to touch them- is something you will have to accept and live with for the rest of your own life. 

Death can understandably seem like such a frustrating dead end when the one person you want that answer from is just gone- they no longer exist.

So thank god for those of us who are still living, and moreover, those- the ‘Remainers’ if you pardon the political borrowing- who actually breathed the same air, walked the same streets, shared the same bed, as the deserted dead. It can be hard not to view them as local celebs- “So you actually had a PINT with my dad?! What did he drink?  Did he ever get the round in? Did you ever see him drunk?  Tell me something funny that he did.  Tell me!  Tell me!” Losing someone you never knew, or hardly remember means that any slight detail one of the Remainers can impart brings the same joy as being handed a longed-for piece of a particularly challenging jigsaw. And once you have it, it brings one of those ‘A-ha’ moments.  Suddenly you begin to take a step back, and the picture on the puzzle becomes clearer.

This has happened to me only a few times in my almost-37 years. So few times in fact that I remember them all quite clearly.

The first time was in my mid-twenties when a family acquaintance told me out of the blue- “You look just like your dad”.  I remember it was a clear evening in the South of France.  I looked up at the bright moon, and felt elated, as though someone from the past had touched me, clasped me reassuringly on the shoulder.

About 10 years later, my mum invited me to meet an old colleague of my dad’s, James, at York station.  We went for a drink and he and mum chatted about life in Bristol, dad’s home town, and where mum and dad lived until their move up North in the late ’70s.  I sat and listened mostly, glad to be there, but unsure where to interject- I wasn’t even born when the my parents knew James.  At one point I absent-mindedly opened my bag and put on some lipbalm.  This caught James’ eye, and he turned to me and said, “You know, you were just like your dad there.  He was always putting on his Lipsyl when we worked at the theatre. He said he didn’t like having dry lips”.  Once again, it was like a crack in time and space had opened up. To someone else, this might sound insignificant, like clutching at straws, but it took my breath away.  Even my mannerisms were like those of my father!

Finally, just a few months ago, an old family friend who had known my parents since shortly before dad died, came up to talk to me at my sister’s wake. Amid condolences about my sister’s loss, she told me that my father was still remembered in the local parish as that tall, handsome man with all those little children. “You’ve always looked the most like him”, she told me. Once more, I was bowled over. One, the thought that anyone remembers my dad as a living, breathing human being is amazing to me. Two, the thought that my features somehow resemble his is something I treasure.

When I was about 14 years old, mum had a collage of photographs made up from lots of dad’s headshots from his days as a jobbing actor. It hung next to the window in my bedroom at the front of the old Victorian terraced house we colonised for the best part of 15 years. I spent bloody hours staring at those photographs. Wondering, waiting, sometimes there would be tears, but mostly I would be wishing.  It is a childish sugar-coated myth that tell young kids that if you wish for something hard enough, it can come true, but god, how I wished. 

I was more than old enough to know that dad was not going to reappear and miraculously banish my sister’s manic depression, or my mum’s money worries, but after a while I created a fantasy meeting between myself and my father.  A sort of compromise to a second coming. We would be in a garden, it was misty, there would be low hanging trees and a small stone wall. I would be standing there, and he would slowly appear out of the mist.  I know, it sounds very romantic, but stay with me. Anyway, he would appear opposite me, look me directly in the eyes and say, “You are my daughter,” and then say my name in full.  It was very important he said my full name for some reason.  I guess even in my fantasy world, I had to ensure it wasn’t a case of mistaken identity, and there wasn’t some other expectant daughter waiting, dead-fatherless, in another garden.

I have done some hypnotherapy in the course of having two children, and I can attest that visualisations really can help a person cope with immense pain. So I guess this was a self-made visualisation that must  have helped me through a difficult period.  God, it’s bad enough dealing with teenage hormones and broken hearts, never mind coming to terms with the loss of a parent 15 years later than everyone else. And so I suppose this garden therapy helped me to soothe the rough edges of grief during those years when getting a boyfriend seemed an impossibility, and going out on the town was something only my older siblings did.

I digress.

Growing up the many photographs of my dad around the house, and the openness of my mother to tell us all she could about our father, helped massively to piece together an impression of the man.  Many an evening, me and my sister Mary would sit on the end of my mum’s bed, while the mute discussions of Newsnight flickered on the portable TV perched precariously on a stand not fit to hold the weight of a television, and listen to stories of how my parents met, where they went on honeymoon, what famous actors dad trained with at drama school.  And at the end of it all, mum would say, “Should have had the dictaphone on!”. That was 20 years ago.  I thought we would somehow make sure that next time we were recording it, but we never did.  And now that Mary has gone, I am only sadder that we never got round to capturing those conversations. Which is why I want to set that right.

One of the first things I did after I spoke to Justine that day was to make a list of all the people I needed to speak to in the course of my research: 1) Mum.  A proper chronology of dad’s life is what we needed. Where he was born (at home? in hospital?- it was 1942!), the name of his school, what O-levels he got, the names of his friends, who the living members of his family are.

And so this is my mission for the coming months.  It sounds simple enough to do, but if you’ve read any of my previous blogs, you’ll know that my family is never straight forward.

In the meantime I wanted to make contact with my dad’s only living sibling in Ireland. Which I did a couple of weeks after my initial conversation with Justine.  But more of that next time.

Until then.

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